India – Stuck in Mumbai with no money


Mumbai (aka Bombay), India  (GPS: 18.936134, 72.837918)

The “Superpowers of the Future”, back in the 90’s it seemed that both China and India will come out swinging in a global economy and take over the world. You couldn’t helped to notice it in the news when the Chinese economy surpassed the US (in total, not per capita…not yet) and what did you hear about India? Probably not a whole lot, maybe that they managed to put a satellite around Mars for less money than what it took Hollywood to make the “Gravity” and unfortunately its not a code name for some crazy science experiment, just a simple movie.

What exactly led to a country getting to Mars on the FIRST try and then not being able to claim the top spot in the world?

Because we when to India straight from China, it set up a direct comparison of the economy, culture and infrastructure. I tell you what i see, so this is just a look at the surface of these aspects.

The story of our time in India is probably one of the most interesting. There will not be any close calls with death, no crazy tropical diseases…no, no in India this is just called living.

Arrived from China about 1am, stood in line to get our passports stamped while nervously calculating the actual days between our inbound and outgoing flights, since we only got a 30 day visa arriving at 1am was actually critical. An hour early and we would…a flight arriving early? yeah, that would never happen. But the hour spent in line for immigration gave me plenty of time to count to 30.

Passports stamped, luggage in tow…we walk out at 2:30am. First things first, find ATM, pray to all the gods that our card hasn’t been blocked….wait for an eternity for that machine gun sound of the bill counter…accidentally pee your pants a little bit from the excitement of gun fire starting. Walking around the airport, strangely all the ATMs seemed to be down. Luckily found a prepaid cab that charged us a small fortune of 1200 ruppees to go from the aiport to the Fort area. Thats fine, now we just have to get to bed. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Woke up feeling amazing, free terrible breakfast at the hostel with some terrible coffee to wash it down…who cares lets go outside and see the city. Its December, the weather is beautiful almost too hot even, the air is full of life. Seriously, it smells like the air is alive and its not a pretty little kitty…but the stuff that grows under your toenail.

There is already so much you can tell from just one photo (above) – old colonial architecture overgrown in lush greenery, birds, old taxi (Hindustan Ambassador), an even older balding man in a white shirt…walking, driving and flying in any directions they like.

A pretty typical street in the old part of Mumbai. We decided to stay in the Fort area to really get the feel for “old” India. Here you can find small streets, buildings with overcrowded and crumbling facades and men everywhere.

We wondered around for a little while, looking for an ATM that worked, without any luck we settled on getting some decent coffee and food in Starbucks. Without cash our options were limited to places that take cards and India that means you are going to the “expensive” places. Coffee, nice sandwich…and finally our heads clear enough to get into this mess of ATMs.

Turns out we were not only ones affected, not just the city of Mumbai – the whole nation was affected. On the night of our arrival the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, issued a decree making all the large bills no longer legal, specifically the 500 and 1000 ruppee notes will no longer be legal tender. People could exchange their old bills for the new ones in a bank with a limit of 4000 ruppees/day. And since the ATMs only worked with 1000 notes, they couldn’t operate either.

All of this was done to bring under control “black” money and rampant corruption. And the only way it would work if the whole thing was kept a secret until the last moment, meaning that the whole country would be turned upside down by the announcement. This also means that banks, business and the government literally did not have enough small bills to give out, cause a huge shortage of cash in the economy.

And do you guys know the date? November 8th 2016. PM Modi timed it just right to coincide with the US presidential election. This way any fluctuations in the ruppee value would be outweighed by the instability of global markets due to the dollar.

What does all this mean to us? Well, we are stuck with only cards in an economy that works almost exclusively on cash – no street food, no taxis, no subway, no bus.

No museums, no boats…no ice cream. Do you get the bleak picture?

We resorted to just walking around the city checking out the architecture, looking at people and generally not spending any money. Sounds like a good way to save a few bucks, until you have to eat and pay three times the price just to use the card.

Through out the Fort area of Mumbai you can see many buildings with a distinct architecture, that looks like English Gothic but with a Curry twist to it. Looked up the building name from the above photo, disappointingly dull  – Municipal Corporation Building, Mumbai. But also learned that it belongs to the Indo-Gothic style of architecture.

Street food. You dont have to look for it, just walk in any direction and it will find you. We walked around from stall to stall, greedily looking at the plates full of something delicious. I’m still not sure what it is exactly but people where hurriedly dipping butter toasted bread rolls in it and stuffing it in their faces.

Anywhere in the world I would have elbow my face to the front of the sizzling grill and demand for a plate of whatever it is everyone else is eating around here. Hearing so many stories of problems with stomach, bugs and digestion in India I was honestly glad we didn’t have cash so I could walk by and nod sadly, to imply my desire and lack of means. But deep down i was happy that I could spend an extra day getting my tummy ready for the adventure of India.

As we wandered through the streets from one historical building to the next, it quickly became apparent that we are in a city of men. Men walking down the streets, men pushing the carts, driving taxis, making food, selling things…all by men to men. Of course there are women and girls, how else would the country live? But why do you just not see women in the streets? Immediate answer is that they stay at home and take care of the house and kids. I dont think anyone is forcing them to stay at home…

Honestly, i could care less about the women and whatever social issues they were facing. Our cashless situation was starting to worry me more and more as we passed bank after bank with closed gates and all ATMs out of service.

Sure, we can find food and shelter, but in a couple of days we have to take a train to Udaipur and we need cash for that!

Funny how your own problems overshadow completely any issues of others. That is until you go into a restaurant for lunch, look at the TV and realize that your home country has gone off the rocker and elected DONALD TRUMP!

For the next 3 hours we just didn’t feel right, all of a sudden our issues were superseded by a great evi…, greater event.

We ate our delicious Indian food without a smile on our face, think how will this affect our lives. Should we just stay in India until the US comes to its senses? What did we miss in a year of being abroad, what happened back home? I’m sure everyone else also felt like they were punched in the gut by a chubby kid…blonde, sour-faced chubby kid.

Quick walk down the street reminded me of the reality of life in India. Maybe life back home is not that bad after all…

To distract ourselves from all the worries we tried to find things within walking distance and most importantly FREE! We wouldn’t even mind paying with a card, but a lot of the places just plainly didn’t accept them.

Just a 5 minute walk from our lunch spot we found the “Gateway of India”, which looks like the French “Arc de Triomphe” in Paris.

The original purpose i suppose was to welcome the dignitaries coming and leaving, if you remember some history that would be the kings and queens of England. A hundred years have passed since the gateway was put up, the world went through 2 world wars, India gained independence and we now use airplanes as primary method of long-distance transport. So what happens with all the useless stuff that has at least a bit of history?

Just turn it into a tourist attraction – people come by take photo in front of it and feel satisfied about their trip. “See, we were there!”

But today the gateway’s monopoly on people and camera’s attention was broken by a visiting stranger. Only after a month in India you grasp the concept that a lot of Indian do not get to travel outside of their country. Sure they have seen white people before, but a korean girl is such a rarity that deserves a part in the family album.

After we do our touristy thing and look like we are done, someone will approach and politely ask if they can take a picture with you. Not seeing any harm in this, you agree, put your arm around a strange and smile like a Hollywood star. Thinking that you are now free, you start to turn when another person suddenly appears and asks if you dont mind being a part of their family history as well. With a crowded plaza this could have continued for a long time…but you see, i was not the one they wanted. If you notice i’m one documenting this whole process and not because i’m a dedicated photographer. Fed up with lack of attention in my direction, I quickly told everyone that this party is over and we have to go somewhere. Selfish, I know, but they could have wing manned this whole thing a bit better. Remember the Bro Code:

… If my wingman meets a hot chick with an ugly friend, I will jump on the grenade. If my wingman …

Clearly “How I Met Your Mother” hasn’t hit India just yet, but i did hear a lot of people quoting “Friends” then we should just wait 10 years.

The following morning we were on a mission – get train tickets to our next destination – Udaipur. It seems like every blog in the world about travel in India writes about how great it is to travel by train. Without our Hodori with us, I guess we will also have to stoop down to their level and travel like peasants in public transport.

A couple of weeks before i spent almost a day online trying to figure out the Indian railway system and ticket booking only to get to a point where i couldn’t purchase an available ticket because the website didn’t take my card…the best 8 hours of my life 🙁

Luckily one of Mumbai’s train station was just a 10 minute walk from our hostel, which is another reason to stay in the Fort area. The station building is absolutely beautiful, i would say in the same “indo-gothic” style. Thanks to our new friend from the hostel, Steve, we were now in possession of some cash. He lent it to us without knowing when or how we would be able to repay him, absolutely the nicest thing that has happened to us since we got to India.

The train station DOES NOT accept cards as of December 2016, hopefully in the future they will. The major train routes are booked up weeks in advance, but if you are tourist there is a chance for you to get the “tourist quota” ticket. Basically, some tickets are held on reserve for foreigners up to 24 hours before the departure. There is another system, called tatkal, that holds a certain percentage of tickets for last minute purchase. Luckily, we could get some 2nd Class AC tickets under the tourist quota.

But we ended up spending almost all the money we got from Steve on the tickets. Not only were we completely cashless, but we know had a debt to be paid back…not the end of the world but definitely not the way i like to travel. At least we have the tickets to Udaipur!

If you go to India, its is an absolute certainty, an undeniable fact that you will see at least one cow on the street. The aforementioned creature will leisurely stroll through the crowd eating whatever food and garbage it can hoover up. They are the animal equivalent of street sweeping and vacuuming trucks we have have in back home, they also produce greenhouse gases! At least there is the benefit of producing milk.

With our 50mm lens on the Nikon we had to walk quite a far back to try to fit in the whole train station in the frame. We do have a fish eye, i just think the heat of the day made me too lazy to fiddle with changing lenses on a busy street. At night, with a clearer head i actually managed to snap a photo, scroll a 6 photos down.

Most of the Fort area explored we tried to figure out our plan for the day, once again no cash. By this point the feeling of adventure was quickly wearing off and we were getting a bit annoyed at the whole situation.

You are probably thinking to yourself, why wouldn’t you guys just go to currency exchange and get some ruppees? The truth is that we got so lazy about preparation and could not even imagine the idea of the whole banking system collapse that we only had 5 US dollars and 20 Chinese yuan. Yes, yes what about the “emergency reserve”? We spent it somewhere else a long time ago and didn’t bother restocking it. The 5 bucks has been travelling with us since San Diego in the depths of our purse.

Thinking that is better to have something rather than complete zero we went into the currency exchange. On any other occasion we would have been laughed out of the door, but these are hard times for everyone. The clerk examined our beaten up $5 bill, more with pity rather than judgement. He smiled politely and informed us that there is a flat rate exchange fee of $5, but in our case he would lower it to a $1. Seems like a ripoff, but you had to feel the situation to know that he was doing us a favor.

With about $8 dollars worth of ruppees, feeling rich but not rich enough to take a taxi we set about exploring the city a bit more. Wandering around town in the general direction of Haji Ali Dargah mosque. It was not a short a walk from our hostel, add to that tropical heat, pollution and crazy drivers and you got an adventure just getting there.

Located on a small island, connected by a walkway, the mosque looks really cool from the photos.

What you dont see is the garbage lined shores, what you dont feel are the thousand eyes on you because you are wearing shorts and a tank top (thats about Hyein, not me). No one was openly aggressive, but the staring made me so uncomfortable that we left without even going inside the mosque.

In the background you can see the rest of Mumbai that we never got to experience because we didn’t have cash. Look they have skyscrapers and modern buildings, i bet that India is different from where we are now.

If you still dont understand or believe in how bad it was, this should be proof to you. This is not even the line for the ATM, this is just line for people to exchange their old notes for smaller or new ones!

Every bank had lines stretching around the block, every ATM was out of service. It felt like a practice run for an apocalypse!

Finally, we stood in line for an hour to get out 1000 ruppees per person, thats $15! So for the two of us we could get $30…per day. And the first withdrawal all went to paying back our debt. But at least now there is some hope on the horizon. We just have to wait in these lines for hours to get money, not the best thing to be doing as a tourist.

Not everything was bad, at least we could always rely on delicious Indian food to take our minds off things. Thali (left) and Pav Bhaji (right). Thali is course with 4-8 different curries with roti or chapatai on the side. The curries are mostly vegetarian and range from sweet to spicy. Pav Bhaji is a combination of veg curry and a heavily buttered warm roll.

India is the first country on my list where I examined the vegetarian offerings in great, maybe even greater , detail than the meat sections.

Walking around the old part (Fort area) of Mumbai all of your senses are overwhelmed. It is just too many people, all moving at once in all different directions, add to that perpetual neurotic honking of tuk-tuk drivers, the smell of food and human waste, the dazzling colors of the city and traditional garments. You dont have an identity, you feel like you are a part of a larger organism, you are not aware of your role in the function of the whole being, you just know that you are the sweaty bit that needs to be washed soon.

Thousands of people getting on and off the trains, rushing somewhere then another train approaches and yet another wave of people pour out into the station. Within minutes they absorbed into the outside chaos of food vendors, tuk-tuks and cows. Everyone has their own life, their own ambitions, we are just another tourist with a camera on their way back home.

Armed with another infusion of cash from an hour long wait at the ATM the next day we ventured out to Gateway of India again, this time to take a boat to the Elephanta Island.

Elephanta Island and Caves (GPS: 18.966508, 72.930036)

The island can be reached by ferry in about an hour. The journey itself is luckily calm, quite and very boring. After Darien Gap crossing, i will take boring any day of the week.

Once you get to the Island you have to pay extra to get to see the caves, with foreigners paying 15 more than the locals. There is no reason to come to this island if you are not going to see the caves.

Cut from solid rock, the caves are and interesting place to wander about.

In these Hindu caves the sculptures present a view of the world not currently employed by the Hindu community. The women are not afraid to show the most beautiful features of their body, and even though they are made of stone, their curves can turn a real men to stone.

Wikipedia – the cheapest tour guide that ACTUALLY speaks English.

Once you are done taking pictures of the caves, for some reason you are NOT allowed to shoot video inside, there is not much else that we found interesting to see.

Walked around, took some photos of monkeys and people.

The monkeys on the island are not afraid of humans and will routinely beg or even steal your food.

Once again it started with a single person asking for a photo and in no time we were taking pictures with half the island. This time we turned the table and asked them to say “Hello, welcome to India” in Hindi on video. The first time we did it the whole group was super disorganized with people shouting too slow and too fast. Took a few tries but i think we got it right.

The whole island feels very tourists with merchants lining the whole path from the ferry to the caves. At first you say “No, thank you” to their request to examine their wares, then you get a little upset by their insisting nature and then you reach peace and just look past them.

A large portion of the tourist is made up of what seemed like Indians. This way you are actually able to lose yourself among them and not feel like a cattle being herded from one touristy spot to the next.

We spent less than 2 hours on the island and felt like it was just the perfect amount. If you decide to come out here, plan for about a 4 hour max total trip.

The ride back was much more enjoyable, we had the view of the city illuminated by a sun setting into a layer of thick haze.

The people, warn out by the hot day have mostly passed out lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat.

The view of the Gateway of India from the water, a view for the privileged of the last century.

Would i recommend going to the island and caves? If you have the time, then its not a bad way to spend half a day but if you are in the city for only 1 day then I would think you have better things to do.  This was the last day in Mumbai for us.

S0 we spent the evening, walking around the now-familiar streets and central station. The smells and sounds that were so foreign only a few days ago, are now becoming a part of the surrounding, unintrusive and comforting.

I think that evening is the best time to explore Mumbai, the heat of the day is dying down yet the city is full of activity. The lights on the prettiest of the buildings come on to present the “indo-gothic” in the best possible view.

Our train is departing at midnight from a train station across town and should arrive in Udaipur the following afternoon. We wander about always looking for another operational ATM, counting the money we have and thinking how much longer will this continue.

Mumbai is a great beginning to our journey in India, even though we were here for 4 days we were so busy dealing with the money situation that it felt like we didnt have a single minute to truly rest and take in the city.

On the way from the airport to the hostel and from the hostel to our train station we drove through one of the largest slums in the world. Both times it was at night, so it presented the darkest and most sinister view of the life in the slums. The Dharavi slum is home to almost a million people, so it would be interesting to explore how it functions. I’m not necessarily keen on documentary photography with taking pictures of children playing in garbage, it has always felt wrong to me. I would like to walk through and see the everyday life though, trying not to be too intrusive, a think hard to accomplish with my skin color.

We leave Mumbai with a first taste of India, how will the rest of the country be? Will it also be a maddening rush of people, Bengali sweets and diesel fumes?

But already in the 4 days we have experienced something that has been holding India back – tremendous corruptions. The demonetization crisis brought to light not only the underlying issue of corruption and money laundering but also the cultural issues. Many times in line we saw so many people patiently waiting for their turn, only to see some hot shot walk up to the front and cut the line. The kind of ruckus that usually followed would discourage me from ever making a wrong move in India. But the fact that people still try hints at the underlying issue of human interaction.

At the same time this whole self-imposed crisis shows the desire of the at least the prime minister Modi for India to change for the better. This is a radical move and the word on the street is that people are actually happy about it. Sure, most are annoyed at the long wait times, but they always comment that its for the better.

This is what 2nd Class AC looks like, there are 4 beds (2 per side) with a little table at the bottom level. In December it was absolutely unnecessary to have AC, as we were to cold most of the time, i just dont know if they have 2nd class non-AC. You also get a curtain to give some privacy from the walk way. The trains are old, worn but in complete functional order, thousands of people go through this cart in probably a month, yet there is a feeling that its built to withstand this rush of people.

A lot of the people in Mumbai speak decent English and we were not short of company on the train. The people are just as interested to hang out with us as we are with them.

We learned about the “bindi” and “sindoor”. The dot you see on a woman’s head if it is red, signifies that she is married. Bindi is an ornamental marking or a piece of jewelry usually placed on the forehead. This one is just done to look pretty and says nothing about the marital status of a person. Sindoor is usually applied at the parting of the hair and can be worn along with ornamental bindi. If a woman stops wearing the red sindoor, that means her husband is no longer with us.

The henna hand painting you see in the above photo is usually done for special occasions such as weddings, its the equivalent of getting your nails done. It lasts for a couple of weeks before it starts to look like you have a skin disease Vitiligo (that’s the one Michael Jackson was supposed to have, RIP).

Next up Udaipur, this time you will not have to wait for 2 months, as we are determined to write everyday 🙂